Quinnipiac Hockey Coach Rand Pecknold has seen the school and his hockey program make a remarkable transition since his arrival at the Hamden, Conn. campus two decades ago.
Pecknold, a graduate of Connecticut College, took over at Quinnipiac when the school was still a college and before the athletic program embarked on its Division I voyage.
Now, 20 years later, Pecknold has seen both the school and his hockey program make major strides. "The progression over my 19 years here has been amazing," said Pecknold in April at the Frozen Four media day. "My first year we had roughly 2,000 applications. This year we should break 20,000. We went from a college to a university, and we're about to add a medical school," added Pecknold.
At the same time the school was growing, the hockey program and the athletic department as a whole was becoming more of a household name. "It's a credit to our president, John Lahey. He's done a tremendous job growing our university. He's a visionary. The driving force behind going Division I in athletics and bringing [Athletic Director] Jack McDonald to make the transition for us was to become a better academic school," explained Pecknold in Pittsburgh.
That vision came to a head this past academic year with the incredible success of Coach Pecknold's hockey team. The Bobcats were ranked as the top team in Division I for much of the year. QU ran away with the ECAC Regular Season Championship and earned the number one national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Pecknold's team advanced to the Frozen Four for the first time in school history before bowing out to league and in-state rival Yale in the national championship game. One of the team's star players, goaltender Eric Hartzell, was a Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins following the season.
How did this all happen? Pecknold and his staff, including Bill Riga and Reid Cashman, have scoured the continent for some of the hidden gems who might have escaped from the view of other programs and sometimes they have gotten in on certain players early.
"I want to recognize our assistant coaches, Bill Riga, Reid Cashman and Dan Meyers. Without them we wouldn't be here," said Pecknold prior to the Frozen Four.
In addition to a good recruiting philosophy, other things had to fall in place. One was the addition of a beautiful on-campus arena. Quinnipiac's High Point Solutions Arena opened six and a half years ago. It is a venue that impresses recruits and allows for the Bobcats to be showcased more on regional and national television with games on NESN and NBC Sports Network this season.
"We've been in our rink now for six and a half years. We were in a town rink before then. You just aren't going to do it from a recruiting standpoint [without the new rink]."
The coaching staff has hit homeruns on some older junior players who were overlooked by the more traditional college hockey powers. Hartzell, the ECAC Player of the Year along with a close call for the Hobey Baker, was overlooked by many of the western schools, but came out to Quinnipiac and improved each season. Leading scorer Jeremy Langlois was a player that toiled around in the Eastern Junior Hockey League before landing in Hamden. One of the team's top defensemen, senior-to-be Zach Tolkinen, was an older player from Minnesota who has progressed significantly at Quinnipiac. All three find themselves in an NHL Development Camp this summer.
With the new rink and the move to the ECAC from the Atlantic Hockey Association came the opportunity to recruit more blue chip prospects. Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Matthew Peca is one of those players. The Petawawa, Ont. native notched a natural hat trick in the regional final victory over Union en route to the Pittsburgh NCAA tournament. Edmonton Oilers pick Kellen Jones and his brother Connor are two more big recruits pulled in from the BCHL.
This year the team will have five NHL draft picks on the squad, including two very promising freshmen. Connor Clifton, a New Jersey product from the US National Development Program, was selected by Phoenix, and fellow incoming freshman Peter Quenneville was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Undrafted forward Sam Anas had a terrific year for the Youngstown Phantoms, scoring nearly a point per game in the competitive USHL. His scoring prowess earned him a spot on the Washington Capitals Development Camp roster.
The cupboard for the future isn't bare either. The staff has lined up another pair of brothers for its 2014 recruiting class in Nathan and Jonah Renouf. The two will play for the Surrey Eagles (BCHL) this upcoming season before enrolling at Quinnipiac.
The program has come along way, as has the school it represents. "One of my goals was to achieve this goal [of being in the Frozen Four], but I never thought it would happen 15 years ago. We're proud of our accomplishments," said Coach Pecknold.
He spoke of the boost Boston College received from Doug Flutie's miracle pass to Gerard Phelan. Maybe last year was Quinnipiac's Flutie moment or maybe it has yet to happen.
Jeff Cox is a hockey reporter for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.